Sunday 28 December 2008
by: James Rainey, The Los Angeles Times
In Kathmandu, journalists set down their cameras during a sit-in for freedom of the press. (Photo: Reuters)
A Mexican reporter who wrote about drug violence in his homeland is being held in custody by none other than the U.S. government and its immigration service.
Yes, we reporters might get stuck covering the late shift or - egad! - a parade. When disaster strikes or a source calls back on deadline, the nights can be long. Newspaper layoffs and hard economic times can cast a pall over just about everything we do.
But those concerns seem a piffle every time I read dispatches from around the world about journalists who, fighting for the story, also must fight for their lives.
The day before Christmas, an international group condemned the protracted torture of a journalist in Pakistan. And militant Maoists ransacked the offices of an opposition newspaperin Nepal. Its crime? Using acronyms for two of the militant groups without distinguishing between them.
A couple of days later, news arrived that Zimbabwean journalist and human rights activist Jestina Mukoko had been accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Mukoko - already in custody for challenging Robert Mugabe, the thug who runs her country - could face death.
Sadly, real press freedom remains elusive even closer to home, as revealed by another story just over our southern border.
Two days before Christmas, a 15-year-old Mexican boy held a news conference in El Paso to detail how his reporter father had been held - without charges - for six months. Theperpetrators were not shadowy foreign agents or some sketchy dictator, but the United States government and its immigration service.
The story grows out of the drug violence that has beset Mexico and left more than 5,300 people dead this year. Since 2000, 44 journalists have been killed in Mexico, many of them targeted for writing about the drug gangs that dominate the country.
The military crackdown on the drug lords has created its own problems. And that's what brought reporter Emilio Gutierrez Soto of El Diario del Noroeste into the story.
In 2005, he wrote that some soldiers were drunk when they raided a hotel in northern Chihuahua state. Other stories reported alleged thievery by the military. Last spring, a squad of soldiers and their commanding officer invited Gutierrez to a restaurant in his hometown of Ascension. They told him he would pay with his life if he continued. They ordered him not to tell anyone about the meeting.
Gutierrez, 46, promptly wrote another story, in which he recounted the alleged death threat. A few nights later, he said, a pounding on the door awoke him and his son.
Some 50 soldiers, wearing masks, ripped through the house, claiming they were looking for drugs and illegal weapons, he said.
The soldiers didn't find anything and left, Gutierrez said. After, a friend of one of the soldiers warned him that the next visit would be the last.
Gutierrez, the sole supporter of his son, decided he could not wait. On June 15, the reporter and his boy crossed the Rio Grande and into the land of the 1st Amendment, turning themselves in to immigration officials and pleading for asylum.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials took father and son into custody and sent them to a detention center in El Paso.
The U.S. has rejected asylum requests from several other Mexican journalists who said they feared for their safety. But Gutierrez said he believed he could prove he had a real and credible fear for his personal safety in his home country.
The bitter irony - according to his lawyer, Carlos Spector - is that by presenting himself as an "arriving alien," the reporter was not entitled to the judicial hearing that an illegal crosser would have received.
ICE's request to postpone his hearing until March means that Gutierrez will have waited nine months to plead his case.
So he sits and waits, missing his freedom and his son (who was released to family friends in the U.S. after a couple of months in custody). He wonders how he can make a new start, if he gets the chance.
"I am not a criminal," the reporter said in a telephone interview last week. "I am a journalist."
U.S. officials, Spector said, have called Gutierrez a "threat to the community" but offered no evidence. "They can't even come up with a rationale," Spector said. "They don't even try."
An ICE spokeswoman declined to comment, citing Gutierrez's privacy and the pending hearing.
Spector theorizes that the U.S. government is loath to offer relief to a journalist who has raised doubts about the Mexican military's conduct. That would embarrass an ally and trading partner.
Even if he could be released back to Mexico, Gutierrez said, he would not want to go, fearful about his safety and of leaving his son behind. "I love my country, but I can't go," he said. "Because if I do, I'm going to die."
Another El Diario reporter was shot to death last month outside his home in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso. An online newspaper editor at the funeral received a cell phone call: "You will be next."
Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit that advocates for journalists, has spearheaded attempts to win Gutierrez's release. The Catholic bishop of El Paso last week lent his voice to the campaign.
It would be nice to believe our government is trying only to protect us. But it's hard to imagine what's taking so long to decide Gutierrez's fate - or what would warrant holding a reporter for so long, without the chance to plead for his freedom.
In the meantime, the US government has pledged that it wants to help Mexico win its war on drugs and corruption.
A good way to start would be to protect the journalists who have risked their lives to help the public understand a sad, sad state of affairs.